The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Oxbridge

10 Jul, 2023 | University Preparation

Applying to the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge can seem really daunting. With a different application process to other UK universities, most applicants will be required to take a subject-specific entrance exam and attend an interview.

This long – and quite often, intense – process can be confusing to navigate without guidance, so we’ve put together an ultimate guide to help boost your university application and give you the best chance of succeeding in your Oxbridge application. 

This article has been written by Jessica, a current University of Oxford student, who has shared everything she thinks you need to know to ace the Oxbridge application!

Please note, OxBright is not affiliated with any university, including the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

What is Oxbridge?

Oxford University and Cambridge University are two of the oldest academic institutions in the world, and are collectively referred to as “Oxbridge”. 

Teaching first began in Oxford in the eleventh century, and two centuries later the University of Cambridge was founded. Both Oxford and Cambridge are prestigious world-renowned collegiate universities, with a reputation of high-quality teaching and research.

Despite having similar educational structures and reputations, the universities are far from identical and students have unique experiences at each of the institutions. Oxford is a larger city with a vibrant urban atmosphere. The busy and bustling streets are a contrast to Cambridge, which more closely resembles a large and picturesque campus that just so happens to dominate the town. 

Each university also has its own unique traditions, such as Cambridge’s C-Sunday or Oxford’s May Morning celebrations. It’s a great idea to seek out first-hand experiences from Oxbridge students to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to study at each university. Studying at Oxford or Cambridge University comes with many quirks – and can seem very strange – but it can also be a lot of fun!

What are the entry requirements for Oxford and Cambridge Universities?

For an undergraduate degree, the University of Oxford typically requires grades AAA or A*AA at A-level, but this can vary between subjects. 

For an undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge, students will usually need to reach grades A*AA or A*A*A at A-level – again this varies between subjects. 

For students studying the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, Oxbridge usually require grades from 38-42, with all 6s or 7s in Higher Level subjects. 

It’s an excellent idea to also consider any relevant subjects for the degree you hope to study. If you’re planning to apply for a Medicine degree, make sure to take two or three science subjects at A-level. Similarly, English admissions tutors will want to see English Literature and essay-based subjects on your application.

It’s important to research specific course requirements and subject prerequisites before applying to any university course. Course outlines are almost always available on the university’s website so it’s worth researching the available modules to see if the course aligns with your interests and goals!

How do I write my personal statement?

The most important thing to emphasise when writing a personal statement is that you’re passionate about your chosen subject, and have invested time and energy into that subject outside of your classes. 

Showcase relevant experiences that have encouraged your knowledge and love of the subject, such as extracurricular reading, work experience and independent projects. This is your opportunity to draw attention to your strengths and any work you’ve completed that will help you stand out from other applicants.

You can also include other achievements to demonstrate a variety of skills and qualities. Volunteer work, leadership roles or hobbies can all be included in a personal statement to show a committed, well-rounded and hard-working attitude. 

Online courses, conferences and virtual internships  are also an excellent way to improve a personal statement and show a student’s passion and drive for their work.

Above all, make sure to showcase your original and authentic self. This is your moment! This is your chance to present yourself to admissions officers and let them get to know you. Don’t try to copy anyone else, but instead, be as open as you can about how much you care about the subject you’re applying to study.

The process of writing a personal statement can be tricky, and shouldn’t be rushed. It’s okay to not get it perfect the first time. You should make multiple drafts and revisions, and ask for as much feedback as you can from teachers, family and friends. 

It’s also important to note that the structure for personal statements will be changing in 2024. See our blog to keep up-to-date with the UCAS personal statement changes.

Does Oxbridge have admissions tests?

For most Oxbridge courses, there will be a compulsory, subject-specific admissions test, usually sat in October, after UCAS applications have been submitted. 

Each subject tests their applicants slightly differently. For example, the Oxford MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test) lasts two and a half hours, and has computer-based questions and a paper answer booklet. 

On the other hand, in the Oxford MLAT (Modern Languages Admissions Test), each language paper is only 30 minutes long, and is completely computer-based. The Cambridge admissions papers are quite similar in style and length to the Oxford admissions papers.

To prepare for an entrance exam, it’s useful to find past papers online to familiarise yourself with the exam format and the types of questions that will be asked. Completing practice questions and revising the topics that you fall short on will also be helpful. Specific practice papers from previous years can be found on the course websites, but you can also directly search for them online, e.g. “MAT past papers”. 

The University of Oxford, one half of Oxbridge.

How do I prepare for an Oxbridge interview?

The interview is the final stage of the application process, and is arguably the most important –  it’s the candidate’s final chance to impress! 

Before the pandemic, interviews took place in-person and candidates would travel to their chosen college, staying there for the duration of the interview process, which could be as long as a week. However, since 2020, interviews have taken place online, and this is still continuing post-pandemic as students find it more accessible and convenient.

Interviews vary in style between subjects. Humanities interviews usually involve a discussion about the applicant’s interests and their personal statement, with a short task to complete (e.g. the candidate might be given an unfamiliar poem to analyse in an English interview). Usually, only one interview is needed.

STEM applicants usually have multiple interviews. Students applying to study Chemistry will have two or three interviews encompassing inorganic, organic and physical chemistry. STEM interviews tend to focus on the applicant’s ability to solve problems,  giving students questions to answer in front of the interviewer.

To prepare for an Oxbridge interview, it’s useful to ask a teacher, friend or family member to conduct a mock interview with mock questions. This can help you to grow more comfortable in an interview-like setting, and can also allow you to prepare answers to common questions. 

Again, if you’re passionate about your subject and have invested time and energy into it, then try not to worry, because this is the most important thing that interviewers are hoping to see!

What makes a good Oxbridge reference?

A good Oxbridge reference should showcase a student’s passion for the subject, intelligence and hard-working nature. The best person to write this reference is often a teacher or tutor, but it also could be a leader of a club or team that you’re a part of. 

It’s important to choose a referee who knows you well and will be able to write about you honestly and in detail. If you’d like to request a reference from someone, just email them – usually teachers are more than happy to help.

It’s important to maintain a good relationship with your teachers and seek advice from them whenever you can. If they’re writing your reference, make sure that they know lots of information about you, such as the extracurricular activities you take part in, your interests and achievements outside of school, and the course you’re applying to study. 

When are the application deadlines?

The UCAS deadline is usually 15th October, except where this date falls on a weekend. It’s important to check the specific dates for entry in the year you’re looking to apply.

To manage your application preparation well, it’s a good idea to start working on your personal statement at the end of year twelve, in June or July. That way, you have time to produce multiple drafts over the summer, and participate in more extracurricular and supercurricular activities that you can add as you perfect your statement. If you start preparing early, the process will be a lot less stressful.

The Oxbridge application process is long, and it’s important to learn about all the steps so you can best prepare for them. From the interview to the entrance exam to the personal statement, help is always available online to make the process less daunting and more manageable. 

For more subject-specific advice and recommendations, sign up to our OxBright newsletter to help give your application the edge. We have lots of free university preparation resources available on our website to help you prepare to the best of your ability, such as our Ultimate Guides, which cover interviews and entrance exams for specific subjects. 

Overall, approaching your application with confidence, determination and thorough preparation will give you the best chance of success! Applying to Oxbridge is an exciting and unique process, so enjoy it!


By Jessica Mason

Jessica is currently studying a BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, and has a particular interest in Early Modern theatre. She enjoys writing articles and has lots of experience in student journalism.

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